With numbing regularity we hear the refrain: Why won’t President Obama name “the enemy”? This is the battle cry of the Republican clown show and their Greek chorus in the conservative media, and it raises the question arises: who and what are they talking about?
The answer we get is invariably the same: it’s “radical Islamic terrorism.” This is the obligatory phrase uttered like an incantation by all the Republican candidates, from Lindsey Graham on the interventionist far end of the spectrum all the way to Rand Paul on the other end. According to the Fox News-talk radio crowd, the President is afraid to utter these words for reasons that remain obscure – albeit with the clear implication on the part of some that he is secretly sympathetic to Islam, and is therefore “soft” on terrorism. Donald Trump goes the farthest in this direction, but the Republican front-runner is just being more explicit about what the others only dare to darkly imply.
Yet what does this vague formulation actually mean? Who, specifically, are these “radical Islamic terrorists” – and where are they?
There is, of course, al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, founded by Osama bin Laden, but now supposedly sidelined by its even more radical rivals in the “Islamic State,” or ISIS. While both of these groups are international in scope – ISIS, for example, has recently expanded into Libya – the epicenter of the Terrorist International is currently located in Syria, where an Islamist insurgency is engaged in a struggle to overthrow the government of strongman Bashar al-Assad.
Here all the various factions have planted their flags and staked out their territory: Syria today is occupied by a bewildering array of constantly shifting splinter groups and “fronts” with exotic names like the “Army of Conquest” and the “Martyrs of the Syrian Revolution Brigade.” Whatever their ideological or strategic differences, most or even all of these groups have two things in common: they are Sunni extremists who want to replace the secular Ba’athist regime with a theocracy, and they are financed and supported by foreign powers or interests.
There is no dispute about who is financing and supporting Syria’s Sunni radicals: the Saudis, Turkey, and Qatar have been giving the Islamists not only financial but also logistical support. In preparation for next year’s Vienna talks, which will see the regional stakeholders plus the big powers deciding Syria’s fate, the Saudis are hosting a meeting of the Islamist factions in order to forge some semblance of unity. While al-Qaeda’s official affiliate, the Nusra Front, is not invited, Ahrar al-Sham, which is a “revisionist” offshoot of al-Qaeda – and which is now the second largest faction, next to ISIS – is taking a leading role. The group was founded by leading members of al-Qaeda, who had been photographed conferring with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri: one of the co-founders was deemed Zawahirit’s personal representative in Syria. The original leadership was wiped out, however, in a mysterious car bombing, and the new leader, Sheikh Hashim al-Sheikh, also known as Abu Jaber, fought under the command of the “Free Syrian Army,” the US-backed rebel group that has since shrunk into insignificance.
This was hailed as evidence that the group was moving into the “moderate” category, despite the fact that Ahrar al-Sham coordinates with al-Qaeda on the Syrian battlefield. Its public relations department – yes, these guys are organized! – managed to convince the editors of the Washington Post to publish an op ed piece portraying them as benevolent liberals devoted to “dialogue” and attacking the US government for defining “moderate” in such “narrow” terms as to exclude head-choppers with links to al-Qaeda such as themselves. The author – one Labib al Nahhas, the head of their “foreign relations” department – declared, “Assad is finished,” and the only alternative to ISIS is “a mainstream Sunni Islamic group” such as Ahrar al-Sham, which has been “unfairly vilified.” Such categories as “moderate” and “extremist” are meaningless, Nahhas averred, unless defined “by the Syrian people themselves.”
Of course, people who regularly behead their opponents are indeed extremists, no matter who does the defining. But trying to explain that to the Salafist fanatics who run Ahrar al-Sham is a futile task: they are quite simply barbarians who belong in the 12th century rather than the 21st, and their attempt to ingratiate themselves with Washington has got to be one of the boldest appeals to moral relativism since the US hooked up with “Uncle Joe” Stalin during World War II.
Indeed, just as during that worldwide conflict Stalin had plenty of American cheerleaders, there is today a significant faction in America that wants to embrace Ahrar al-Sham, and they are agitating regularly for US aid to these faux-“moderates.” You’ll recall that President Obama rejected the scheme cooked up by Hillary Clinton, then-CIA director David Petraeus, and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to not only arm the Syrian rebels in a big way but also to define “moderate” in a more “inclusive” manner. Yet the Syrian rebels’ American fan club didn’t give up the fight. Indeed, after his downfall, Petraeus came right out and said we ought to ally with the more “moderate” elements of al-Qaeda (i.e. Ahrar al-Sham & Co.). and there are suspicions that while he was in office that’s precisely what the US was doing. (US intelligence officials, by the way, have urged the Obama administration to “lay off” al-Qaeda in Syria.)
To a normal American, this seems crazy: after all, didn’t this whole “war on terrorism” business start in the wake of al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? How is it possible that some people in high positions want to ally with the very same barbarians who murdered over 3,000 people on September 11, 2001?
During World War II, the biggest supporters of an alliance with Stalin were members of the American Communist Party, who were influential in certain circles. Today, a similar cheering section for a foreign power is lobbying for US support to the Syrian rebels – in this case, the foreign power is Saudi Arabia, in tandem with Qatar and Turkey. The Brookings Institution, which was granted a $14.8 million donation by the Qatari government, has been one of the leading voices for arming the rebels, “mainstreaming” Ahrar al-Sham, and overthrowing Assad: Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings’ Doha Center, in Qatar, has been particularly prominent on this front. And money from the Gulf monarchies rolls into Washington like a never-ending gravy train, corrupting thinktankers and legislators alike.
But it’s not just the Arab lobby that acts as the Syrian rebels’ fifth column in the US: the Israel lobby also plays an important role, just as the Israeli government does on the ground in the Middle East. Reports that rebel fighters are being aided with medical assistance in Israeli hospitals – with Israeli commandos rescuing wounded Islamist fighters in the Syrian war zone — illustrate Tel Aviv’s de facto alliance with the Islamists. The destruction of the Assad regime has been a longstanding goal of the Israelis, and Israeli officials have openly stated that in any conflict between the Ba’athists and the head-chopppers, the latter are to be considered the lesser evil.
Israel openly sides with the Sunnis in their jihad against the Shi’ite “heretics” for the simple reason that Tel Aviv sees Iran as their main enemy, which has to be stopped at any price. That it is Sunni Islamists rather than, say, Hezbollah, who are mowing down innocents on American soil is f no concern to them: they put Israel first, last, and always. Their American lobby has a similar agenda.
That there is a serious debate in Washington over whether or not to support an Islamist rebellion against one of the last secular rulers in the Middle East is a monument to the fact that we have become the prisoner of our own “allies.”
While few politicians are willing to take on these powerful foreign lobbyists, US law enforcement is another matter entirely – one the regime-changers didn’t factor in to their calculations. Last week the FBI arrested one Amin al-Baroudi, 50, also known as Abu al-Jud: he was charged with smuggling military equipment to Ahrar al-Sham and “defrauding the United States” government. As the Washington Post reports:
“In August 2012, according to the indictment, someone warned Baroudi that Ahrar al-Sham was dangerous and, unlike other rebel groups, wanted to establish an Islamic state in Syria. Baroudi responded that he had a good relationship with the group, according to the indictment.
“In December 2012, according to the indictment, the same person told Baroudi that Ahrar al-Sham was ‘Qaeda less 25 percent.’ Baroudi’s precise response to that assertion is unclear, though prosecutors alleged that Baroudi said he intended to bring more than $30,000 in equipment to Syria and train people there to use it.”
While the Obama administration faces a “serious dilemma,” according to reports, over how to approach Ahrar al-Sham and its fellow extremists, those who are devoted to protecting the US from terrorism on American soil are apparently far less ambiguous in their stance. Mr. Baroudi, after all, lived in Irvine, California – an hour’s drive from San Bernardino, where Syred Farook and his jihadi wife mowed down a room full of Americans. And so while Michael Ratney, US envoy to Syria, was meeting with Ahrar al-Sham in Turkey, this past Saturday, FBI agents were arresting Baroudi.
The irony is that the same Republican deadheads demanding that the President pronounce the sacred words “radical Islamic terrorism” are lobbying – along with the Gulf monarchies and the Israelis – to arm “moderate” groups like Ahrar al-Sham and screaming for Assad’s head.
This disconnect between policymakers in both parties and law enforcement represents a serious breach between US foreign policy and its ostensible purpose – protecting the American people from harm. Indeed, the former is radically undermining the latter– and that has always been the problem. In the age of terrorism, the consequences could be deadly.
Who is the “enemy”? Where is the Enemy? The reality is that we are our own worst enemies.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.